To date, it is widely accepted that microdomains do form in the biological membranes of all eukaryotic cells, and quite possibly also in prokaryotes. Those sub-micrometric domains play crucial roles in signaling, in intracellular transport, and even in inter-cellular communications. Despite their ubiquitous distribution, and the broad and lasting interest invested in those microdomains, their actual nature and composition, and even the physical rules that regiment their assembly still remain elusive and hotly debated. One of the most often considered models is the raft hypothesis, i.e., the partition of lipids between liquid disordered and ordered phases (Ld and Lo, respectively), the latter being enriched in sphingolipids and cholesterol. Although it is experimentally possible to obtain the formation of microdomains in synthetic membranes through Ld/Lo phase separation, there is an ever increasing amount of evidence, obtained with a wide array of experimental approaches, that a partition between domains in Ld and Lo phases cannot account for many of the observations collected in real cells. In particular, it is now commonly perceived that the plasma membrane of cells is mostly in Lo phase and recent data support the existence of gel or solid ordered domains in a whole variety of live cells under physiological conditions. Here, we present a model whereby seeds comprised of oligomerised proteins and/or lipids would serve as crystal nucleation centers for the formation of diverse gel/crystalline nanodomains. This could confer the selectivity necessary for the formation of multiple types of membrane domains, as well as the stability required to match the time frames of cellular events, such as intra- or inter-cellular transport or assembly of signaling platforms. Testing of this model will, however, require the development of new methods allowing the clear-cut discrimination between Lo and solid nanoscopic phases in live cells.
Keywords: amorphous materials; crystal seeds; crystallization; membrane microdomains; membrane transduction; rafts.